Some Russians scramble to leave, fearing they may be drafted to fight in Ukraine

As Russian troops slowly advanced on Ukraine's capital Kyiv on Thursday, some people back in Moscow were attempting to flee to destinations abroad that have not banned flights from Russia, stomaching soaring prices in the rush to escape.

Kremlin has dismissed speculation on plans for martial law

Police stand guard in St. Petersburg during a protest against the invasion of Ukraine on Tuesday. The words 'no to war' are seen scrawled on a nearby advertisement. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

As Russian troops slowly advanced on Ukraine's capital Kyiv on Thursday, some people back in Moscow were attempting to flee to destinations abroad that have not banned flights from Russia, stomaching soaring prices in the rush to escape.

The Kremlin dismissed speculation that Russian authorities plan to introduce martial law following the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special operation," or that they will stop men of fighting age from leaving Russia, but some did not want to risk staying.

One Russian man, who moved back to Moscow from western Europe around a year ago, said he had bought a flight to Istanbul for the weekend, fearing that living in Moscow may no longer be possible.

"I'm afraid that mobilization will be introduced tomorrow, and I won't be able to fly out," said the 29-year-old, requesting anonymity like others cited in this article.

"In my worst nightmares, I couldn't have dreamt of such hell when I was coming back a year ago."

Men take down a sign reading 'No War' that was hanging over Nevsky prospect, the central avenue of St. Petersburg, Russia, on Tuesday. (Dmitri Lovetsky/The Associated Press)

Another man, 38, said he had managed to buy an expensive ticket to fly to the Middle East this weekend.

"I don't want to fight in this war. We've heard lots of rumours, and I don't trust the Kremlin when it says they aren't true," he said.

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia's military operations in Ukraine were going according to plan, and he praised Russian soldiers as heroes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen attending a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, claims what he calls the 'special military operation' in Ukraine 'is proceeding strictly in line with the timetable.' (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters)

"I want to say that the special military operation is proceeding strictly in line with the timetable. According to plan. All the tasks that have been set are being successfully resolved," he said.

Putin's televised comments seemed designed to rebut statements by Western governments and intelligence agencies that Russia's campaign has stumbled in the face of logistical problems, tactical mistakes and fiercer-than-expected resistance from Ukraine.

Start of 2nd week of conflict

Russia's invasion of Ukraine entered its second week on Thursday with Ukrainian cities surrounded and under bombardment.

More than one million people have fled Ukraine's borders since the invasion began, and Russia has been plunged into isolation never before experienced by a country with an economy of such size.

A Ukrainian serviceman checks a man hiding in a foxhole Thursday after a Russian warplane buzzed overhead some 80 kilometres northeast of Kyiv. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

The cost of plane tickets has leapt since Russia closed its airspace to airlines from the European Union and many other countries in a tit-for-tat response to sanctions imposed by the West, severely limiting the ability of Russians to travel.

The unprecedented Western sanctions on Moscow have already sent prices soaring and started affecting the lives of ordinary Russians, while those who protest have been swiftly arrested.

Around 7,669 people have been detained at anti-war protests since the invasion began on Feb. 24, according to the OVD-Info protest-monitoring group.

After giving her cat to her family to look after, a 29-year-old woman flew to Israel on Sunday before prices rose even further, worried that things in Moscow can only get worse.

"I am ashamed that I haven't stayed in Russia, that I am not fighting to the end, not protesting in the streets," she said.

An aerial view shows a residential building destroyed by shelling in the settlement of Borodyanka in the Kyiv region of Ukraine on Thursday, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues. (Maksim Levin/Thursday)

"But if you go out against the war, they arrest you, and there is this law on state treason."

Russia's state prosecutor's office on Feb. 27 issued a reminder that anyone providing financial or other assistance to a foreign state or international organization aimed against Russia's security could be convicted of treason and face a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Bureaucratic challenges

Others faced bureaucratic hurdles. Russians require visas to enter most European countries, and a modest queue had formed at the Italian visa application centre in Moscow, which was still accepting requests by appointment only, with the nearest available slots over a week away.

"I will make an appointment for March 11, although what may happen in the near future is scary and uncertain," said one 40-year-old Russian woman who was also arranging COVID-19 testing needed to cross borders. 

"I want to have a visa ready. I think they will let me in with a PCR test, and then I'll sort something out."

Russia's Sputnik V vaccine has not been approved by the EU, meaning many Russians without a shot recognized in the West may be denied entry on health grounds.

It was not just Russians trying to flee. A Filipino woman who works as a nanny in Moscow was also applying for a visa.

"I desperately want to get a visa, I'm scared here," she said.

With files from CBC News